Lockdown then and now: ‘Deja vu’ as Boris Johnson prepares to announce second UK coronavirus lockdown

Samuel Lovett
·6-min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

More than seven months have now passed since Boris Johnson first placed the nation into lockdown, reshaping all aspects of everyday life. Now, as the second wave intensifies, he stands poised to shut down the country once again.

Saturday’s decision comes after initial refusals to consider another lockdown. Ministers were warned in late September by Sage that the country faced a “very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences” unless they took immediate action by imposing a two-week “circuit breaker” - yet No 10 waved away such advice.

With cases, hospitalisations and deaths continuing to rise, the government has now decided to act. But, for many, it’s a case of too little, too late.

“By delaying, the harm done to industries and society will be far worse compared to had the advice of Sage been followed in September,” said Dr Stephen Griffin, an associate professor at the University of Leed’s School of Medicine. “The deja vu that the UK is about to endure was entirely preventable.”

In Indeed, in many ways it feels as if the country is back to where it started in the days before 23 March, the day Mr Johnson announced the first lockdown. The population remains unsure of what it can and can’t do. Test and Trace is on its knees. And scientific modelling has predicted thousands of deaths in the months to come.

Follow live: Johnson summons Cabinet ahead of 5pm announcement on nationwide shutdown

Despite having the benefit of seven months’ of experience to draw from, those in power have seemingly learnt little from their past mistakes.

So, looking back at the circumstances that surrounded the first lockdown, how does the current situation compare?

Infections, hospitalisations and deaths

Then

On Monday 23 March, the death toll from Covid-19 had reached 335 with 54 deaths recorded on the day itself. A total of 3,097 Covid patients were being treated in English hospitals.

There were 967 positive test results on the day, but given the UK’s limiting testing capacity in March, it’s believed thousands more were infected with the disease. A total of 83,945 tests had been carried out.

Now

To date, 58,925 deaths with Covid-19 on the death certificate have been registered. The latest government data shows that 274 people deaths were recorded on Friday 30 October. The peak for this week came on Tuesday, with 367 deaths.

There are currently 10,708 patients in hospitals. Of these, 975 are in mechanical ventilation beds. The latest available data shows that 1,489 people were admitted to hospital on Monday 26 October. Throughout the pandemic, 167,515 people have been hospitalised with Covid-19.

A total of 989,745 people have tested positive across the UK, with 24,405 new infections reported on Friday. The daily testing capacity stands at 480,961, while nearly 31 million tests have been processed throughout the duration of the pandemic.

Even with the UK’s improved testing programme, it’s believed England is currently seeing between 53,000 and 90,000 new infections per day, according to the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M).

Test and Trace

Then

After working to trace contacts in the early days of the pandemic, Britain largely scrapped this system by 12 March.

Professor John Newton, director of health improvement at Public Health England (PHE), later told a parliamentary select committee that the initial tracing system was abandoned due to the threat of being overwhelmed by the rising cases, with the government instead opting to enforce lockdown.

Now

Test and Trace programme is continuing to deliver record low returns, with just over 60 per cent of close contacts of people infected with coronavirus successfully reached by the system, according to the latest data.

In the week ending 21 October, a total of 284,701 people in England were identified as coming into close contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid-19 – yet only 60.3 per cent were reached and asked to self-isolate, far below the 80 per cent considered necessary to control transmission.

This is the second lowest weekly percentage since Test and Trace began, and is up by 0.7 per cent on the previous week.

Additionally, fewer than one in four tests — 22.6 per cent — taken in person at a testing site in the UK were received within 24 hours.

The PM has openly admitted that the system needs to improve, while Dr Griffin said it remains “a dysfunctional and ineffective body”.

The predictions

Then

Professor Neil Ferguson, a former scientific advisor to the government, predicted in mid-March that 250,000 people could die without drastic action. His modelling shaped the government’s response to Covid-19, leading to the national lockdown.

Scientists later lowered their projections for the number of people expected to die from the coronavirus in the UK. On 14 April, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) said the UK would see over 66,000 deaths during the “first wave” of the Covid-19 pandemic, up to 4 August.

Now

Scientists advising the government have warned that up to 4,000 daily deaths could be recorded during the height of the second wave if a lockdown is not imposed.

Hospitalisations would not peak until the middle of December, with deaths continuing to rise until at the end of the year, according to SPI-M documents seen by the BBC.

A separate paper circulating in government says the NHS would be unable to accept any more patients by Christmas – even if the Nightingale hospitals are used and non-urgent procedures cancelled.

The Sage committee has meanwhile warned that the number of deaths could surpass the 85,000 figure predicted by government modelling.

Treatment

Then

In the weeks before the UK lockdown was enforced, little was known about the virus and how to treat patients with severe symptoms. 

On 28 February, the population was told “the best thing people can do to prevent the spread of coronavirus is wash your hands”. Mr Johnson later said the “two key symptoms are high temperature and a continuous new cough.” There was no emphasis on widespread mask-wearing at this stage.

Now

The UK has seven Nightingale hospitals which, on paper, will allow authorities to alleviate pressure on stretched intensive care units as more and more people are hospitalised with Covid-19. However, questions persist of whether the NHS has the manpower to operate the Nightingale hospitals if they were to rapidly fill up.

Scientists and healthcare workers now know more about Covid-19 and the means with which to treat it, helping to save more lives that would otherwise have been lost during the first peak.

Of all the 150 drugs being trialled worldwide, only steroids have proven effective. 

The UK's Recovery trial showed that dexamethasone - which is cheap and readily available - cut the risk of death by a third for patients on ventilators and by a fifth for those on oxygen. Further data suggests another steroid, hydrocortisone, is equally effective too.

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